Something strange is happening in the early part of the 2015 season: teams are playing to their expected level of production.
Considering each National Football League season contains only sixteen games, the sample size for a particular franchise is relatively small. Hot and cold streaks could tip the scales of what would otherwise be a balanced process. Because of this, outcomes appear to be somewhat random. More accurately, the true baseline of a given franchise is constantly being shaped over the short regular season.
Normally, what looks like an ‘easy game’ is anything but. One team that is universally considered better than another is expected to win, but, as the NFL has proven for years, it isn’t always that simple. Often times, the generally ‘unexpected’ occurs.
Not in 2015. At least, not yet, anyway.
Five full weeks into the season, the teams with the best records against the spread are the Bengals, Packers, Steelers, Cardinals, Broncos, Falcons, Patriots, and Jets. What do all of these teams have in common? Besides the fact that they each have a winning record, many were arguably considered the best teams in the league before the season began. When has the NFL ever been so predictable?
It would seem logical for teams that win often to also cover the spread regularly, but the two are not always linked. Of course, the undefeated group of Green Bay, Carolina, New England, Cincinnati, and Denver haven’t lost a game, but they also are a combined 16-3-1 against the spread. The Patriots and Packers have even covered games in which they were favorites on the road by more than a touchdown worth of points.
This simply does not happen.
The first five weeks of the 2015 season have broken the rules. Instead of resetting expectations to adjust to this new normal, we look at the league as a trap, overall.
This isn’t a sign of things to come. It’s a sign that things are about to change in dramatic fashion.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 18-15 (Last Week: 4-2)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 39-36-2 (Last Week: 6-7-1)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (+3.5)*
The New Orleans Saints have already crumbled. Now 1-4, 0-2 in the division, and playing on a short week following a blowout in Philadelphia, the Saints have the misfortune of hosting the 5-0 Atlanta Falcons.
While no team plays the same style of offense as the Eagles, the Falcons are equally capable of compiling points against a weak New Orleans defense — Atlanta is ranked third and fourth in the league in offensive points and yards, respectively. Not only have the Saints allowed more yards than any other team, their typically prolific offense ranks in the bottom-third for points scored.
Each Thursday Night Football contest calls a team’s preparation into question. In addition, the manner in which both squads finished their previous games have a bigger impact on the following week than a typical Sunday game. The Saints will look to erase the embarrassment left at the hands of the Eagles, while the Falcons showed some flaws, needing overtime to beat the visiting Redskins. In addition, the familiarity between the two organizations closes the gap between them.
The Saints and quarterback Drew Brees have clearly had their issues over the past calendar year, but the team is 13-1 in its last 14 primetime home games. The Saints are also 1-1 at home this year, despite a 1-4 overall record.
The rest of the league may have already pronounced the Saints ‘dead,’ but a home game against a division rival in front of a national audience will be the team’s final attempt at recovering a lost season. Finally, for all the points the Falcons have scored, they failed to reach 27 points in three of their five games.
The Saints still have the playmakers to keep pace with Atlanta, and New Orleans pulls off the home upset. The Saints win by four and beat the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills (+3.5)*
The Cincinnati Bengals have been undeniable good for the better part of the last decade. Until 2015, however, they had yet to assert themselves as one of the elite, capable of winning games under any condition. After pulling off an improbable comeback win against the visiting Seahawks in Week 5, the Bengals have officially taken the proverbial next step.
To a much lesser degree, so have the Buffalo Bills.
Entering the 2015 season, the Bills — lead by defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan — were expected to have one of the league’s better defenses, while the offense was full of questions. As the National Football League tends to go, the two were reversed, as Buffalo ranks in the top-ten for points scored, but around the middle-of-the-pack in defensive yards and points allowed.
While the Bills are not nearly in the same class as the Bengals, they deserve recognition for remaining competitive, despite their shortcomings. They have not necessarily ascended, but they have arguably outperformed.
Buffalo’s two losses came against the New England Patriots and New York Giants — both with winning records entering Week 6. In each game, the Bills attempted a furious comeback, pulling to within one touchdown in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Buffalo lost to the Giants by fourteen, marking their worst defeat of the young season.
The Bills quickly gained public acclaim after the first few weeks of the year, but the shine has dulled. Instead, the focus has shifted to Cincinnati, where they are playing at a level that suggests some form of regression is imminent. Even though Buffalo has lost two of its three home games, Ralph Wilson Stadium has been utterly electric all season. The Bills should not continue to have a losing record at home.
Buffalo hands Cincinnati its first loss of the season, winning by a field goal and beating the spread.
Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns (+4)*
The Denver Broncos may be 5-0, but they have failed basically every ‘eyeball test’ in the first few weeks. With only one win by more than a touchdown, Denver’s victories have been plentiful, but not powerful.
Conversely, Cleveland has played a brand of football far better than its 2-3 record tends to indicate. Throughout injuries and uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Browns have muddled through, and appear to have found their footing. In back-to-back weeks, Cleveland has played to within a field goal, winning in overtime in Week 5.
The Broncos bring a busload of playmakers to every game, but they have yet to explode. Week after week, it appears as if the matchup is right for a typical Broncos’ bludgeoning, but it fails to materialize. Unfortunately for Denver, if the Browns do anything right, it’s that they keep games close via their own playmakers.
Considering that the spread has only gotten smaller since opening around five points, and with the Broncos always being a fan-favorite, the numbers appear to be confirming that Cleveland is ready to pull off the upset.
The Browns win by a single point, shocking the Broncos and beating the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs (+4) at Minnesota Vikings
The Kansas City Chiefs suffered one of the most inexcusable losses of the 2015 season in Week 5 when they dropped a home game to the Bears after leading by double digits with minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. While Kansas City was allowed to skate by with excuses of a difficult schedule, losing the Bears confirmed the sad reality: the Chiefs are not good.
What about the Minnesota Vikings?
Prior to the Minnesota’s bye week, the Vikings have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. Three of their four games have been decided by double digits, and the outcomes have ranged from a field goal loss in Denver to a seventeen-point win against the Chargers. All told, as the season has progressed, the Vikings’ two wins — San Diego and Detroit, both at home — has proven to be far less impressive than they looked, at the time.
The Chiefs have obviously failed to find the winning formula since Opening Day, but their most recent loss was more the result of complete implosion rather than getting outplayed. If anything, the loss pushed the spread against them, while forcing their focus to increase for their trip to Minnesota.
The Chiefs finally get back in the win column, beating the Vikings by six and beating the spread.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions (-2.5)*
When the 2016 NFL Draft rolls around, the Lions and Bears might be making the first two selections. Both franchises are in disarray, and neither has a chance to survive, let alone stay afloat in the NFC North.
The Detroit Lions have been abused for five weeks. Like the Chiefs entering Week 5, the Lions are in desperate need of a gift. Unlike the Chiefs, Detroit will not squander the opportunity of facing the Bears.
The Chicago Bears may have won two consecutive games, but they are easily one of the worst teams in the league, regardless. Beating the Raiders and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks is nice for the team’s psyche, but a combined margin of victory of three points is not inspiring.
Chicago trailed Kansas City by 11 points late in the fourth quarter in Week 5, and were granted a miracle by a collapsing Chiefs team. The Lions have already reached rock bottom, and will allow absolutely nothing to slide past without a fight. Detroit cannot and will not remain the only winless team in the league for the remainder of the season, and there are only so many teams they can realistically beat.
The Lions win by ten and cover.
Miami Dolphins (+2.5)* at Tennessee Titans
With two weeks off, a coaching change, and the most recent memory being a divisional blowout, the Miami Dolphins have already been cast off by the football-watching world. Few believe that the season is worth salvaging, at this point, and, between the Dolphins and Titans, the team with the brighter future plays in Tennessee.
The Titans may be building for the next decade, but the Dolphins are collectively playing for their jobs, right now. The turnover at the head coaching position has already resulted in the shuffling of personnel, and the players, themselves, will be held accountable for what happens over the next dozen weeks.
Miami entered 2015 with lofty expectations due to a combination of key offseason moves and a solid foundation of talent. With a 1-3 record, it is obvious that wins have been scarce, but the projected outcome should not be so wildly off base.
With two weeks to prepare for a new game-by-game regime, Miami will play its best football on Sunday. The Dolphins win by two touchdowns and beat the spread.
Washington Redskins (+6) at New York Jets
If the Washington Redskins have shown us anything in 2015, it is that they will no longer be an easy victory. Excluding a Thursday Night Football division game against the Giants, the Redskins have lost two heartbreakers, one by a punt returned for a touchdown, and the other by an interception return for a touchdown in overtime.
As the Jets return from London, they will welcome back Sheldon Richardson, making the defensive line even more impenetrable. Washington hardly boasts a prolific offense, and the matchup is tilted in New York’s favor.
At least, on one side of the ball.
The Redskins have managed to outperform expectations in four-out-of-five games by keeping their opponent’s score low. Once again, excluding the game against the Giants, Washington has allowed an opponent’s offense to score at least twenty points only once. The Jets are not the type of team to break through the Redskins’ defense.
In what should be the lowest-scoring contest of the week, the Jets get the edge via the extra preparation time and the improved, stout defense. Washington will struggle to find points, and the Jets will be able to do enough to slip past.
New York wins by two points, but Washington beats the spread.
Arizona Cardinals (-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers
This week’s column has focused heavily on avoiding the ‘obvious’ picks in ‘easy situations.’ The Arizona Cardinals would normally fit the description, but there was one factor far greater than the potential for a ‘trap’ — the Steelers’ emotional road victory on national television in Week 6.
The Mike Vick-led Steelers are a far cry from the version that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger usually leads, yet the team was able to steal a win in Roethlisberger’s absence. In the two games that Vick started, Pittsburgh has scored 37 offensive points. In Roethlisberger’s two starts, the Steelers totalled 64 points — the game against the Rams, in which both quarterbacks played was removed from the equation, although the twelve points were a season-low for Pittsburgh.
The 4-1 Cardinals have a league-best 190 points scored on the season. They have allowed only 90 points, fifth-best in the league, and their point differential of 100 is an outrageous 27 points better than the next best team — New England. Most importantly, the Cardinals’ did suffer a ‘letdown’ already, but it was at the hands of a divisional rival. When the Cardinals played the Lions in what could have been a ‘trap,’ Arizona embarrassed them. The Cardinals do not take any opponent for granted.
Arizona wins by two touchdowns and covers.
Houston Texans (-1.5) at Jacksonville Jaguars
It seems as if the Jacksonville Jaguars are playing in a ‘favorable matchup’ every week. Instead, the matchup has almost always favored Jacksonville’s opponent, as the Jaguars continue to be one of the league’s worst franchises.
At 1-4, perhaps it’s time to accept the reality: this is the same Jaguars team as years past. Despite the actual talent the team features at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, they have no ability to fight through games and come out victorious.
Neither do the Houston Texans. At least, not until the team is actually complete.
In past five weeks, the Texans have made two separate quarterback changes — including going back to the team’s Opening Day starter — played without running back Arian Foster, and have seen star defensive end J.J. Watt look human. Not only are the Texans due for a complete game, they are due for a complete team performance.
The Jaguars have talent at the important skill positions that translate well to fantasy football, but the Texans have the right personnel to exploit a bad Jacksonville defense, as well as disrupt the offensive game. With extra rest, the Texans beat the Jaguars by a touchdown, as Houston covers the spread.
Carolina Panthers (+7) at Seattle Seahawks
For two non-division franchises, the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers tend to play each other regularly — the two teams will meet for the fourth consecutive regular season on Sunday. Including last year’s playoffs, Seattle has won each of the last four contests, yet only once has the game been decided by more than five points. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks have finished with a better record than the Panthers every year since 2012.
For once, the Seahawks may not actually be the better team.
Carolina has cruised to a 4-0 start largely due to an unbelievably easy schedule — Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay — but a trip to Seattle may not nearly be as threatening as it once was. In five games, including two home games, the Seahawks have only won one by more than a field goal — against the 2-3 Bears.
The Panthers had no issue going toe-to-toe with the Seahawks when the two teams were worlds apart, and, while the 4-0 Panthers appear to be a function of their schedule, the Seahawks are certainly a function of their history. Furthermore, the Panthers will have two weeks to prepare for Seattle.
Carolina is looking for a statement win and, while the Seahawks have not played a brand of football comparable to recent years, a victory in Seattle is always impressive. The Panthers win by four and beat the spread.
San Diego Chargers (+10) at Green Bay Packers
Simply by virtue of playing a home game, the Packers have basically already won. The team has won eleven consecutive regular season home games, with 2013 marking the most recent loss. The San Diego Chargers are walking into the lion’s den.
San Diego is a remarkable enigma. Case-studies should be performed on how consistently average, yet unpredictable the Chargers are. Beating the Browns in Week 4 looked easy enough, but the team narrowly escaped. Then there was the loss in Cincinnati by a handful of points, which is easily forgiven given the state of the Bengals. Finally, the Chargers have the unacceptable Monday Night Football home loss to the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger on their resume.
The wild nature of the Chargers spans much farther than merely the first five games of 2015. For the past five consecutive seasons, San Diego has neither won nor lost double digit games. Every year, no matter how hot or cold the team gets, they tend to finish in the same range. Whenever that happens, the expectation is that they will perform well against better teams — the aforementioned Bengals’ game is a prime example of this — but fall victim to upsets on a regular basis. After all, San Diego has only lost one game by more than five points.
The Packers won’t let the Chargers be the team that ends their streak, but San Diego has a large cushion in the spread. The Chargers lose by a touchdown but beat the spread.
Baltimore Ravens (-2.5) at San Francisco 49ers
While Jim Harbaugh is no longer with the team, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will forever be linked by the pair of brothers that led each team to their respective conference championships in 2012. With that, the Ravens and 49ers are a rare example of non-conference opponents with an odd history.
Only a few years removed from the Super Bowl in which these two franchises met, Baltimore and San Francisco are suffering through dismal 1-4 seasons together. Each team already buried in its division, the season is effectively over, with the biggest motivating factor remaining being pride.
The signs for a potential decline were evident for both teams entering 2015, but the 49ers were about to undergo the biggest transition — losing their head coach and rebuilding. Baltimore, despite the pitiful performances to start the year, still has stability at the two most important positions — quarterback and head coach. In addition, John Harbaugh’s ties with the 49ers should enhance his preparation.
The Ravens secure a much needed win, cruising by seventeen against an inferior 49ers team, covering the spread.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (+8)*
It seems as if every week, the status of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck drives both the spread and the projection for Indianapolis’ games. Granted, Luck is one of the best passers in the league, already, but, as his team has proven in the two games without him, wins can come from all directions.
The Colts have had the good fortune of playing the Jaguars and Texans in Luck’s absence. Hosting the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football will not be as easy.
With or without Luck — at the time of this writing, Luck is still not guaranteed to play — a few patterns and factors remain intact. Most importantly, the Patriots continue to push the limits of road teams covering large spreads, as New England blew past the Cowboys in Week 5, despite giving nine points. Considering how this column focuses on trends that are likely to revert back to their mean, home teams receiving more than a touchdown worth of points will always be the pick, especially after going 0-2, to date.
In addition to the favorable spread, the Patriots have entered an unsustainable atmosphere. In the team’s last two games, New England has outscored its opponents by a combined 58 points.
Indianapolis is not equipped to hold the Patriots in check, but they are capable of keeping pace, to an extent. With New England ready to cool off slightly — the Patriots did only score 30 points in Week 5 — the Colts will be able to stay within the range of the large spread.
New England wins by a touchdown, and Indianapolis narrowly beats the spread.
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (-4)*
At times, both the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles looked like the worst team in the NFC East. While the Giants have rectified their slow start — 0-2 after leading both games by double-digits in the fourth quarter — the Eagles have only recently looked like the potentially dangerous team that was expected to perform in 2015.
An 0-2 division record for the Eagles puts them in a difficult position, as every remaining game against an NFC East opponent is even more critical than it would have been otherwise. Teams rarely go 6-0 in division games, but 3-3 — the best possible outcome for Philadelphia if it loses on Monday night — would most likely end any hopes for a division title. With the NFC East currently separated by only one game and the Cardinals and Packers running away with their divisions, it is unlikely that the NFC East yields two playoff teams.
More important than the implications of the divisional showdown on Monday Night Football is the actual state of each team. The Eagles spent the offseason tinkering with key positions, and entered this year under the assumption that all pieces were in place for a playoff appearance. Whenever a significant amount of talent is assembled, there is a natural learning curve. Some teams never get there, but the Eagles have shown signs that their arrow is pointing up.
Philadelphia carries the momentum from a Week 5 win against the Saints by beating the Giants by ten and covering the spread.
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